Originally created 12/20/97

Father in custody tiff denies trying to hide



From everyone's descriptions of Carmen and Claire Lops, they are wonderful little girls, extremely bright and well-behaved. The question for a federal judge, however, is whether they grow up here or in Germany.

The girls, ages 6 and 7, are in the center of their parents' international custody battle. Since the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found them at their grandmother's Martinez home Nov. 5, the girls have been in a Georgia Department of Family and Children Services shelter.

U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. made clear last week and again Friday that he wants the children with one parent or the other as soon as possible.

"After meeting those children today, I'm not going to have them in custody another hour" after Monday, Judge Bowen said. After closing arguments from attorneys Monday afternoon, Judge Bowen said, he will decide immediately with which parent the girls go home.

In a nearly 10-hour hearing Friday, Michael Lops' attorneys presented his side of the custody issue, denying that Mr. Lops kidnapped the children from Germany and their mother, Christine Lops. Mr. Lops testified that she abandoned him and the children in June 1995.

"She Ms. Lops said if she didn't come back, I could keep the children because she knew they would be better off with me," Mr. Lops testified of his last conversation with Ms. Lops. He could never find her again, Mr. Lops said.

On July 8, 1995, Mr. Lops moved back to the United States, he testified. The girls had left Germany with his mother, Anne Harrington, on June 27, 1995, and traveled to Mrs. Harrington's home in Martinez. They all lived there until August 1995, when his mother bought him a house in North Augusta, Mr. Lops testified.

The girls have attended a private school in North Augusta and participated in school, church, sports, Brownies and Girl Scout activities under their correct names, he said. Mr. Lops didn't attempt to hide the children, and no one ever asked about them on Ms. Lops' behalf, he testified.

A number of people testified Friday that the girls were bright, well-behaved and always appeared happy and well-adjusted.

Mr. Lops testified that his home and vehicle are listed in Mrs. Harrington's name and that she pays his utilities and telephone bills in exchange for $1,000 a month rent. He hasn't paid income tax because he didn't work until this year, Mr. Lops testified.

He doesn't have a bank account, credit card or insurance, he testified. Until this month, he had no driver's license and hadn't registered to vote, Mr. Lops said.

GBI Special Agent Emily Buttrill testified last week that she had been trying to obtain documentation that Mr. Lops has lived in the United States since the fall of 1995. It wasn't until a trace of Mrs. Harrington's telephone was done that agents tracked Mr. Lops and the children to this area, she said.

Friday evening, Judge Bowen told the attorneys that in their closing arguments Monday, they should concentrate on two issues: Were the children concealed and how settled are the children in their lives here?

The Lopses' custody battle is before Judge Bowen because Ms. Lops filed a petition seeking their return through The Hague Convention, an international agreement adopted by the United States in 1988. The treaty outlines legal procedures for when parents allege parental kidnapping across national borders.

The treaty requires the return of children wrongfully abducted from one parent. However, if more than a year has passed since a petition was filed -- as in the Lops case -- the judge should consider the reason for the delay and how settled the children are in their present environment, according to the treaty.